The Peruvian Jungle: a Naturalist’s Perspective

November 26, 2014 Peter West Carey

My first trip to the jungles of Peru was a fluke. I’d originally booked a trip to Ecuador and three days before my departure, stopped into my doctor’s office for a last-minute checkup. He told me where I should be going is the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers in Peru. He spoke about the region and about its natural abundance and incredible beauty. He’d been to the area numerous times to study plant life because he was a board member for the Student Rainforest Fund, a non-profit educational group that immerses students in the botanical world for research and education. With the two of us sitting in his office in Mukilteo, Washington, he spoke with such passion about the jungles of Peru, that he actually convinced me to change my trip. Within an hour after leaving his office, I’d already made a reservation for a jungle lodge on the Madre de Dios River and was in the process of switching my air tickets.

Dr. Morris was right. That trip, for me, was an incredible journey – a wonderful time to learn about the jungle from trained naturalists. I have since returned to the Tambopata River on a trip with G Adventures and was equally indulged in learning a whole different way of life, with the constant din of the jungle all around. I’ve also since spoken at length to my doctor about his passion for this area of the world and its botanical healing properties. He was kind enough to let me interview him to discover more.

Cruising The Tambopata River, Peru

Cruising The Tambopata River, Peru.

Peter West Carey:What prompted you to head to the Rio Madre de Dios for your research?
Dr. Steve MorrisThe first time I went down was actually to Iquitos and not to Madre de Dios. So I was on the Napo River and that was in 1990. I was asked to come teach with Jim Duke who was an ethnobotanist and at that time was the head of the USDA Department of Botany, who also had published many, many books.

I went with him and taught just medicinal botany.

I then, of course, fell in love with the Amazon botanical abundance and moved forward from there.

What have you discovered about the plants in the region that you could not have discovered anywhere else?
Pretty much everything.

Peter: [laughs] How so?

The Amazon, for those of your readers who have not been there, is like, you know it’s like taking a kid to a candy store for botanists. It’s thousands, tens of thousands of species, which we have only scientifically navigated not even fully two percent of those plants. For a botanist, and an ethnobotanist who wants to study plants, people and culture, that is the best of all worlds.

This will be my 19th trip to the Amazon [in December, 2014]. Most of them have been to the Iquitos area but for the last seven and a half years I have been going to the Tambopata River. We started a garden there in 1992 that is still in existence and doing very well thanks to a shaman botanist named Don Antonio Montero Pisco. So I am excited to go.

The flora in the Peruvian Amazon defines abundant.

The flora in the Peruvian Amazon defines abundant.

Are the plants you study endemic to the Tambopata Watershed or are they more broadly spaced across the Amazon Basin?
They’re ubiquitous. It’s more all over the Amazon and I have got to travel to very many different parts of the Amazon over the last 25 years. So we get to experience even the changes in species. Say we have a genius of banisteriopsis which is the famous ayahausca vine and of that we have the white ayahausca of the North and the black ayahausca of the South. So we have many species that we get to even understand. There are over 100 species of banisteriopsis and then all the great botanicals of the immune system, which I am particularly interested in. It’s a plethora of plant life that you can easily get lost in.

You mentioned being back 19 times. How often do you go back?
I used to go back once or twice a year for the first years and I would spend anywhere from two weeks to a year there each time. Since we’ve been focusing on Central America for the last few years, we’ve been going to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize, and this year we were supposed to go to Cuba but we haven’t had our People-to-People licenses approved yet so we are going back to Tambopata.

The river winds its way.

The river winds its way.

Do you do most of the research, as far as lab work, down there or are the materials brought back?
All the materials are brought back. I work with people who are part of national institutes of health including Rosita Arvigo from Belize especially, she’s a great naturopath and has a relationship with the New York Botanical Gardens through Michael Balick and Dennis McKenna. So they bring back samples and are analyzed through [the US] NIH there.

What advice would you give to the adventurous traveler looking to travel to the broader Amazon Basin or even the Tambopata River specifically?
I would encourage you to have a botanist onboard with you [laughs]. To teach you the plants and of course, it’s really nice that we’ve had entomologists from National Geographic with us and we’ve had zoologists with us. We’ve done some pretty cool stuff, like putting up nets at night to catch bats. We have mammalogists there for that out of Mexico. Each year we have different subspecialties and guest lecturers and we usually bring 25-30 students with us.

Sunset on the Tambobata.

Sunset on the Tambobata.

Having been to Peru’s jungles to see firsthand what Dr. Morris is talking about, I can attest that this region is like no other in the world. I would recommend anyone to take a trip up the Madre de Dios or Tambopata Rivers to learn about how medicinal plants have been used historically and what hopes lay ahead, springing from their secrets.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures to Peru encompassing a wide range of dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you the Inca Trail as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Peru here.

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